Real Estate Agent with Captain Bill Realty, LLC


Approach to Runway 13 at Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong


One day I went out to try and find locations to take photos of the aircraft landing at Kai Tak. At the time I was shooting black and white with a Pentax 6x7 camera and doing the developing myself. Lots of work but also a lot of fun. For this photo I was on one of the small hills nearby. The plane had passed the checker board area and was making his turn to final approach.

Kai Tak Approach

Before you begin reading:

Watch this exciting compilation of landings at Kai Tak which very graphically shows the close proximity to the buildings, and then you'll better understand some of the things I'll discuss in this article. In other videos below I'll narrate what you are seeing as the approach is carried out with the camera in the cockpit.

Kai Tak Landing Compilation Video

The Location

Kai Tak Airport was built on reclaimed land at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula with the runway jutting out into Victoria Harbor. There is only one runway and it is facing in the easterly direction of 130 degrees (east southeast) and the opposite direction is 310 degrees (west northwest)

On the eastern end of the runway and all along the south and north side of the runway is Victoria Harbor.

The north and the west side is ringed by hills and mountains. That leaves very little margin for error. The final approach from west to east for runway 13 is over a large number of low rise buildings surrounded by higher buildings. You could use an analogy of threading a needle at 200 miles per hour.

The landing approach using runway 13 at Kai Tak was spectacular, world-famous, and dangerous. The turn onto the final heading for the approach had to be done with precision while also controlling airspeed and altitude. There is little room for error as you'll see in some of the videos.

There were several accidents with fatalities over the 70+ years the airport was in operation, and it finally closed in 1998.

Approach Map

This Google Earth map below shows the typography that we had to deal with as we flew our Pan Am 747's into Kai Tac. For a better understanding, I highlighted the following on the map:

  • Approach Path  (Black line - Sorry, I couldn't change the color)
  • Checker Board  (On hill at the tip of the arrow)
  • Lead In Lights  (Round white dots leading to runway)

On the Google Earth map photo you can see that the airport is already closed. The terminal and other buildings have been razed and all the low buildings in the final approach path were razed to make room for high rises now that the airport is no longer active.

Kai Tak Airport

Long Duty Days

When I was flying into Hong Kong I was flying the Pan Am Boeing 747. We flew non-stop from San Francisco, but sometimes, due to strong winds we had to stop at Taiwan for fuel. We had a double crew because the duty time would be up to 14 hours. The flights would leave San Francisco late in the afternoon, so the awake time would be much more than 14 hours, actually closer to 24.

Oviously when we arrived at Hong Kong we were not at our peak physical nor mental state, but we had to perform at our highest level. It required much advance planning, alertness, and crew coordination. However, with the double crew we were able to get a rest break on the airplane, and that really helped. We had two bunks just behind the cockpit.

Precision is the Key to Success

To make a successful approach and landing on runway 13 in low visibility and/or strong cross wind conditions, the Pan Am pilots had to know exactly what action were going to be taken at each step in the approach, and make sure that the thought process was several miles ahead of the airplane anticipating each upcoming action. So, if you reach the go-around point and don't see the Checker Board, then you immediately make a go around without giving it a second thought.

If you try to cheat a little, thinking you'll see it in a second, that's when you get into trouble. My philosophy was always that it is better to explain to my Pan Am Chief Pilot why I went around rather than try to explain why I damaged the aircraft. However, the strongest motivation for the Pan Am pilots to do it right was that we had the responsibility for the safety and comfort of our passengers.

(That philosophy carries over into my real estate business to this day. I feel the need to always do things right to make sure my clients are taken care of and that every precaution is taken to prevent errors.)

The Approach

The approach  to runway 13 is up Victoria Harbor on a heading that will take the aircraft toward the checker board. At a certain point you can descend to the minimum altitude which was about 600 feet. If you don't see the checker board by a certain point a go around is mandatory.

When the checker board is spotted, you keep flying toward that until the strobes and lead in lights are spotted. At that time a normal descent to the runway can begin at the same time as you make the turn to follow the lead in lights until the runway is in view.

On each side of the runway, there is a set of 4 lights at the target touch down spot of 1500 ft from the runway threshold.

  • If all 4 lights on both sides are white, then you are too high.
  • If the inner two lights are red and the outer two lights are white, then you are on the visual glide path.
  • If all the lights are red, then you are too low and must make a correction to prevent landing short. Landing short can spoil your day!

On a couple of the videos, shot from the cockpit, you'll see those visual glide slope lights with the aircraft right on the glide path.

These photos below are great at full size. Due to copyright restrictions I'm requred to show them just as they are. So click on the photo and take a look at the large version. Photo ID 0049082:
Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747-267B
Click photo for large version! Photo ID 0067206:
Japan Asia Airways - JAA Boeing 767-346

Click photo for large version

In the photo below, you'll see that these buildings are residences, and they are right next to the airport. The airplane is over the runway overrun area, just short of the touch down zone. Down below and slightly behind the main wheels you'll see the airport control tower. You'll see it more clearly in the large version. Photo ID 1505982:
Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747-367
Click photo for large version! Photo ID 0075773:
Gulf Air Boeing 767-3P6/ER
Click photo for large version!


Consequence of Overshooting Turn to Final 

Overshooting the turn to final sets you up for a lot of extra work and a potential hard landing with resultant damage to the landing gear, engine pods and wing tips at best; or ending up in the harbor at worst. If you're late turning, then naturally you overshoot the final heading. That means you must make a corrective turn back past the desired direction. Then as you get back to that desired path you have to make another corrective turn to capture that course. By that time you're almost at touch down point where any error is magnified ten fold.

If there is a cross wind the problem is greatly exacerbated, because you're not only having to make that turn to correct and line up with the runway but you also have to make the cross wind correction to make sure the plane lands headed straight down the runway.

This video (with audio) below shows the results of overshooting and the necessary last minute corrections in a cross wind resulting. The people taking the video are on top of one of the nearby buildings. Sometimes they go to one of the hills with a powerful lens to get different types of shots. Obviously photographing the planes landing at Kai Tak was a popular hobby with the locals and tourists. Especially on a windy day.

Bad Cross Wind Landing Video

  • The aircraft is first seen heading toward the Checker Board.
  • Then you see the turn to final.
  • He apparently didn't compensate for the cross wind and started his turn a little late, consequently overshooting the path to the runway.
  • You see him make a correction back to the runway path, and then when he gets on the path he had to turn back to the runway heading,
  • But again he apparently did not compensate for the cross wind, so at the last second you see the aircraft turn into the wind and touch down with the aircraft not headed straight.

These aircraft can tolerate a lot of stress, but on a landing like that the mechanics will have to perform an inspection to check for damage. I've never had to do it, but it must be embarrasing to have to write up a "hard landing" in the maintenance log. It is required.

Good Approach Example

The best strategy is to slightly undershoot the heading to final approach. That way any correction is just a slight leveling of the wings to stop the turn until you're almost lined up and then make another slight correction.

This next video is an execellent example of that technique used during an approach in the rain with relatively low visibility.

Perfect Approach and Landing

This is inside the cockpit and with the audio on you can hear the pilots calling out "runway in sight", altitudes, and other things as they proceed through the approach and landing. You can also hear the tower talking to them.

  • The video begins as they leave the harbor and are over Kowloon.
  • The strange sound you hear is when the Captain turned off the auto pilot. You hear him say "auto pilot off", to alert the Engineer and Co-Pilot to what he is doing.
  • Next you see the black spot (hill) low and in front of the plane.
  • The Co-Pilot announces "runway in sight"  (It's to his right)
  • Next you see the Checker Boards coming into view on that hill.
  • Then there are some more call outs and the aircraft begins it's turn onto the final approach heading
  • As the runway comes into view you can see that he slightly undershot the turn, and now is gradually sliding over to the runway center.
  • That is the perfect technique because it eliminates the problems inherent in overshooting.
  • On the runway, you see a series of arrows pointing to a set of dashed lines. Those dashed lines are the beginning of the actual runway.
  • You then see a series of white markers -- three on each side - then one large one on each side by the visual glide slope lights - then two on each side - and finally one on each side.
  • The farthest markers "one on each side" is the end of the 3000 foot touch down zone, within which we must touch down.
  • The visual glide shope indicators show that he is exactly on the glide path.
  • At 60 feet the automatic sensors begin calling out the height of the wheels from the ground.
  • His main wheels, which are quite a ways behind the cockpit touched down about exactly on the 1500 foot marker which is the desired touchdown spot.
  • As soon as he touches down you can hear the automatic spoilers being deployed to help slow the plane down, and the auto brakes are also automatically applied.
  • Then you hear the Captain reverse the engine thrust to assist the brakes in slowing the aircraft.
  • Next the flight engineer called out 80 knots at which time the Captain would release the auto brakes and take over braking manually.

The marjority of the landings in Kai Tak were like that, exciting but uneventful. Unfortunately, some were not so good.

The Concorde Missed Approach

Below, the Concorde got into difficulty in a cross wind, and made the very wise decision to go around.

Concorde Missed Approach (not at Kai Tak, but interesting)

Perfect Night Example

Next is a perfectly executed night approach from inside the cockpit.

Perfect Night Landing

  • At 2:18 the strobe flasher and lead in lights become visible. Look to the left of the screen which would be toward the front of the aircraft.
  • You'll see he's making a slight turn to begin following those lights to the runway. The runway is actually visible but the lights blend in with the city lights and are still not really distinctive.
  • At 2:44 the runway is now clearly distinguishable
  • Notice that this pilot is also undershooting just a little so he can slide over if necessary without having to make any steep correcting turns.
  • At 3:08 the camera shoots from the front window and he is perfectly lined up with the runway.
  • It was a very smooth landing and I couldn't tell at which point he touched down.
  • Next the photographer, possibly a relief pilot, points the camera to watch a plane take off, and then focuses across the harbor to Hong Kong Island and you can see one of the many ferry boats carrying passengers from Kowloon to Hong Kong.

Overshooting the Touchdown Zone

In 1993 the China Air flight was landing with 70 degree cross winds at 20 knots gusting to 40 knots, and there was wind shear reported which can cause serious changes in airspeed with a resultant loss of altitude. The airplane did not touch down within that 3000 foot touch down zone I showed you above. Instead of executing a missed approach at that time, he continued to land about 2100 feet past that touch down zone.

That left less room to stop, and there were a couple other mistakes that were made which caused hydroplaning (where the wheels are on top of the standing water on the runway and not getting sufficient traction to brake.)

He was then on a collision course with the Approach and Landing System at the end of the runway, so he elected to ground loop the airplane so it would turn and go off the runway sideways to miss that ALS. There were 22 minor injuries in this accident.

About 13 minutes prior to this approach a British Airways flight had refused to make the approach because of the current condition with the reported wind shear. Photo ID 0180234:
China Airlines Boeing 747-409
Click photo for large version!

Sometimes a pilot will take the risk thinking he may be criticized for going around, or having to inconvenience the passengers by going to an alternate airport. The intentions are honorable, but the judgment is faulty and as in this case the risk can turn out to be disastrous. By refusing the approach under those conditions and going to an alternate, the passengers would have been inconvenienced ---- but they would have been safe.

This was a long article, and if you worked your way through it, I do hope it was both educational and interesting. Sorry it didn't have any sex in it. But be patient. I have a nude self portrait I'm trying to locate :-) 

For any pilots who have not been to Kai Tak, below are some approach charts to check out:

Jeppesen Approach Plates

Jeppesen Approach Plate


 Airport Chart

Approach plate

I'm in the process of writing a book, half of which will be about the non-aviation phase, and the rest will be about the aviation phase of my life, and I'll tell as many stories as I can recall that I hope people will find interesting, and will give younger generations more insight into Pan Am the once greatest airline in the world.
I'm requesting that if anyone wishes to make any suggestions about what should be in the Pan Am section, or in any other section, that can make the book more interesting, I'm open to all suggestions.

For information or to offer suggestions, send an email to Pan Am Captain Bill Travis

My goal is to have the book completed in ebook form by the end of July 2013.

 Other Blogs about Aviation and Pan Am:

Secret Sex Life of a Pan Am International Pilot

Pan Am, Most Exciting and Dangerous Approach and Landing

Pan Am series, First Airline Pilot Job Interview

Pan Am series, My First Flight as an Airline Pilot

Photo of Zantop C-46 on Zantop Ramp at Detroit Metro Airport

Pan Am series, Hong Kong Victoria Harbor Photo, 1986 by Captain Bill Travis

Pan Am series, Greenland and Nick Nolte

Pan Am series, Marlon Brando, the Celebrities

Pan Am series, Pan Am Pilot Photos, 1 Don Rees

Pan Am series Pan Am Pilot Photos 2 Bill Spence

Pan Am series Pan Am Pilot Photos 3 Dick Mayer

Pan Am series Pan Am Pilot Photos 4 Keith Woodmansee

Pan Am series Pan Am Pilot Photos 5 The Nude 

Pan Am series Squaw Valley

Pan Am series Famous Pan Am Pilots

Pan Am series Get Ants Out of Her Pants

Pan Am series Yo! This is Your Captain Speaking, Listen Up

Pan Am series The End of a Career


PAN AM, by Captain Bill Travis, Pan Am Retired



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Sam White
College Station, TX
Integrated Marketing - Bryan College Station,

In a different life, I was fortunate to land 757's and 737's at Kai Tak. In fact, I landed there the last night the airport was open.

Although it was good to get rid of that checkerboard turn to final, lest we scatter bodies and jet fuel over a densely populated area, many of us miss the old approach.

Have a great Thursday!

May 13, 2010 03:01 AM #1
Bill Travis
Captain Bill Realty, LLC - Gilbert, AZ

Thanks Sam:  I was doing some research looking for pictures and videos, and it seems that many of the locals also missed the excitement of the airplanes coming across their roof tops.

Being there the last night the airport was open must have been exciting, and sad.

May 13, 2010 03:26 AM #2
Joseph W. Hazen

Did it several times as a DC-8 captain for Japan Air Lines. Most interesting at night, low ceiling, pissing rain and a strong right crosswind.

Dec 30, 2015 03:58 AM #3
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